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Armenia and Azerbaijan: In Search of Statesmanship

11 November 2010 No Comment

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is one of those intractable confrontations left over from the dying days of the Soviet Union. Since 1994, the calm brought about by an uneasy cease-fire has ‘frozen’ the frontline between the belligerents into place. Save for occasional, localised breaches of the truce, the jittery peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been maintained. Fundamentally, however, the peace talks themselves – presided over by the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group – have produced few results. Squaring the circle between Armenia’s insistence on self-determination and Azerbaijan’s equally adamant adherence to territorial integrity has proved well nigh impossible.

This conflict’s intractability has consequences (and causes) that potentially go far beyond the confines of the Southern Caucasus proper. In the early 1990s, Nagorno-Karabakh was the scene of the former Soviet Union’s bloodiest war, with 30,000 deaths and a million refugees and IDPs. Even by conservative estimates, renewed warfare – with both sides armed to the teeth through years of extravagant military build-ups – would be a far messier affair if left unchecked.

And while open warfare still appears an uncertain, highly costly and therefore irrational choice for both sides, calls to solve the conflict by military means are being heard ever more loudly in Baku. The question must be posed as to whether Azerbaijan’s multi-billion dollar military budgets might, at some point, cause Azeri policymakers to actually believe a war has become winnable. In any case, the sabre-rattling from the shores of the Caspian has little effect on the Armenian highlands. Yerevan continues to insist on Karabakh’s de-facto (if not de-jure) independence, and any suggestion of returning the occupied (or, in nationalist lingo, ‘liberated’) territories to Azerbaijan are received with hysteria, bordering alarm, especially, but not exclusively, in opposition circles.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a good example of what social scientists would call a structure-agency problem. There is no doubt that most people in both Armenia and Azerbaijan desire peace. The difficulty in coming to an agreement is due to the limitations in any human’s ability to shape his or her social environment as they please. This ability (agency) is limited as it collides with the values that govern appropriate behaviour within a given society, or as it contradicts powerful interests in the status-quo (structure). Some citizens and politicians might want to change the situation, but soon enough, however, they would be counter-acted by the nationalist norms that still govern their societies, or Russia’s probable disinterest in a fundamental resolution (absent a major Russian role as a guarantor or a – forceful – restoration of Russian regional hegemony).

Whatever the peace, the nationalist gods must be satisfied, and mother Russia must remain content. And this is a serious limitation, to say the least.

The dark ghosts of nationalism continue to pervade and hold hostage both Armenian and Azeri societies, through selective narratives of exclusive suffering that underlie fear and hatred. When it is socially acceptable for Armenia’s ruling party to source its ideological inspiration from an overt Nazi collaborator, or when it is deemed appropriate for Azerbaijan’s armed forces to flatten a vast historic Armenian cemetery, calls for reason will more often than not fall on deaf ears on both sides of the divide. Armenia’s former president talked of the ‘ethnic incompatibility’ of Armenians and Azeris while his Azeri counterpart then and now happily lays claim to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, and both can count on a considerable measure of social approval for doing so. Politicians on both sides have no problem in either advocating the retention of the fruits of ethnic cleansing, or threatening ethnic cleansing in revenge, in the name of righting ‘historical wrongs’.

Any civil-society initiatives in favour of peace would have to battle and overcome these dark ghosts before becoming relevant in any way.

Moscow’s disinterest in a fundamental resolution is also one of those structural factors impeding peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, in many ways, lies at the centre of the many fissures that run through the region and is the one major factor impeding the independent emergence of over-arching co-operation in the Southern Caucasus. While much is indeed down to the (immature) domestic politics of both actors, the Russian Federation would clearly not be interested in an open, integrated and independent Southern Caucasus outside its own terms; Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan are and must remain within its sphere of ‘privileged interest’.

And if Armenia and Azerbaijan reconcile, it will have to be on Moscow’s terms. Failing that, Russia will have to deftly balance one side against each other without either being able to achieve ‘closure’, or, in fact, either side moving towards open warfare (which would also not be in Russia’s interest in view of its wider regional ramifications). For all their open declarations of concern for a final resolution, officials in Moscow prefer keeping things in suspense, building on a long tradition of ‘divide and rule’, honed during two centuries of imperial domination – one more obstacle on the road to peace.

Does this leave the region without hope? Is it possible to go against these structures and change these societies and their calcified narratives in a certain direction, against the wishes of the Russian bear? Acknowledging the existence of ‘structure’ should not imply surrender to determinism or fatalism; neither does it deprive local and foreign actors of their moral responsibility to at least attempt to lead their societies away from the obscurantist idolatries of ethnic nationalism. From the West – institutions like the EU and CoE, and influential actors in politics and the academe – one should expect a more forceful challenge against the region’s retrograde superstitions, instead of its usual acquiescence or indifference in the name of ‘local sensitivities’, energy supplies and domestic electorates.

For all the impediments, ordinary citizens within the regions have it in their power as well to form peace groups that help fashion an alternative narrative that emphasises the (many) commonalities within the different ethnic groups of that once culturally unified region. But perhaps the greatest key to becoming an agent rather than a victim of history lies in that elusive thing called ‘visionary statesmanship’ – and that is in very short supply on all sides in this long-suffering region.

Kevork Oskanian

Kevork Oskanian is a doctoral candidate at the Department of International Relations of the London School of Economics and a former editor of the Millennium Journal of International Studies. He blogs on security issues in the Caucasus at http://kovkaz.blogspot.com.


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